By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
BEIJING, Sept. 22 -- China's chief quality supervisor resigned Monday in the latest move by the central government to respond to the tainted-milk scandal that has killed four infants, sickened nearly 53,000 and highlighted China's difficulties in overhauling its food safety system.
Li Changjiang, director of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, stepped down with the approval of China's State Council and was replaced by Wang Yong, according to the state-run New China News Agency.
A year ago, Li was in the middle of the toy recall and product safety scare, telling reporters that the blame for dangerous toys from China lay with U.S. designers and importers. His office was also at the center of an urgent effort last year to upgrade food standards, boosting safety checks and making sure that food that had passed inspection was properly labeled.
But his resignation Monday was unlikely to placate the general public, which is angry about reports that seem to indicate officials were more concerned about negative publicity than protecting children's health. Outrage has also been fueled by an apparent double standard, especially on the heels of the Olympic Games, during which officials took extraordinary steps to reassure foreign visitors that China's food supply was safe.
"It's just changing the water without changing the herbs," said Bao Zhangyan, a Beijing bartender. "This scandal is caused by the whole system, so it's no use just replacing a single official."
The dairy company at the heart of the scandal, Sanlu Group, is China's biggest producer of powdered milk. Along with other major suppliers, it was exempt from inspections by the watchdog organization headed by Li. On Monday, state broadcaster China Central Television reported that Sanlu knew of complaints about its baby formula as early as December, citing a State Council investigation.
Investigators believe suppliers of milk to Sanlu may have diluted the milk with water and then, in order to falsely raise its protein count, added melamine, a toxin linked to the deaths and illnesses of thousands of pets in the United States last year that ate pet food manufactured in China. Melamine can cause kidney stones or kidney failure in babies.
Health officials in Gansu province reported in July that 16 infants who drank Sanlu formula had unusual kidney problems, the New China News Agency said, but government officials failed to launch an investigation. Earlier, Sanlu reportedly paid off a man who complained in an online forum that his daughter had become ill after drinking its milk.
Sanlu is 43 percent owned by a New Zealand company, which has said it alerted Beijing to the problems after local officials refused to act. The company's own tests came back positive for melamine in early August, but it did not move to fully recall its product until Sept. 11.
"During these eight months, the company did not inform the government and did not take proper measures, therefore making the situation worse," CCTV said in its report.
Food and product safety scandals are not new in China, but they continue to erode the public's trust at a time when the Communist Party is battling legitimacy issues among an increasingly educated and Internet-savvy population. Officials last year executed the head of China's food and drug agency after convicting him of taking bribes in exchange for allowing fake medicine to enter the market.
But Luo Yunbo, a professor of food science at China Agricultural University and a vice president of the Beijing Food Association, said that "the overall picture is that things are getting better than before."
The government is building a new regulatory system that traces the origin of food, he said. And the issues that have led to food safety problems are deep-rooted.
"For a long time, milk products were cheaper than bottled water. We were afraid the consumer price index would rise and further pressure consumers, so we kept the price of milk products low," Luo said. "Making milk is profitless. If you want to produce good-quality milk, you have to feed cows well."
Over the weekend, a Web site for intellectuals and writers posted a 2007 report from a newspaper in Shandong province describing a local company's contributions to a central government food-supply center in Beijing, which provides organic food to state organizations such as the Central Bodyguard Bureau and the People's Armed Police. The certified organic food undergoes more rigorous testing.
"Okay, I understand," wrote a poster at Bullog.cn. "Foreigners' lives and officials' lives are much more precious than ordinary peoples lives."
Researchers Liu Songjie and Wu Meng contributed to this report.